The Big Picture: Reflections on Science, Humanity, and a Quickly Changing Planet
David Suzuki: The Autobiography
November 4, 2013
Review By Melody Hessing
For Canadians, David Suzuki is an earth-household name, our local (think global) brand, our Green Machine. Geneticist, media host, and co-founder of the David Suzuki Foundation (DSF), the man has dedicated his life to environmental awareness. While most Canadians recognize the name “David Suzuki,” his personal story and the range and character of his observations may be less familiar. These two recent publications introduce readers to Suzuki’s environmentalism.
David Suzuki: The Autobiography introduces the key forces that have shaped his life and work. Deep affection for the family personalizes his writing while it links his observations to the biophysical world. A burgeoning involvement in environmental issues shapes the story as Dr. Suzuki spins academic employment as a geneticist into a broader spectrum of public education through a range of media. Beginning with Quirks and Quarks and It’s a Matter of Survival on CBC Radio, Suzuki moved to television with the Nature of Things, hosting a succession of television series and film ventures.
Suzuki’s involvement in environmental “hot spots” in the Amazon, Australia, and Canada is not only personally formative but also fodder for environmental consciousness-raising. However, he also recognizes the limitations of brushfire tactics as “each crisis is merely a symptom or manifestation of a deeper, underlying root cause” (220-21). In response, with wife Tara Cullis, he establishes the eponymous DSF to conserve the environment through science-based education and advocacy.
The Autobiography reads like a personal road trip with family and work, but it also affirms Canadian values. The internment of the Suzuki family in the Kootenays during the Second World War provides first-hand experience of racism. Membership in a brotherhood of (visible) minorities not only anticipates an emergent multiculturalism but also presages Suzuki’s adoption by and connections to First Nations communities. His writing style is congenial, forging career with charisma in a unique blend of hubris, humility, and intellect.
While The Autobiography chronicles Suzuki’s life, The Big Picture: Reflections on Science, Humanity, and a Quickly Changing Planet is just that – a constellation of approaches to preserving life on Earth. Suzuki and Taylor explore the natural systems of the planet and our place in them. The book begins with an overview of science – its analytic and political relevance, its framework a lens for critically understanding “the environment.” Biodiversity, climate change, transportation, food, technology, and public policy – each arena is discussed in a series of short, informal essays. The interconnection of popular science, personal experience, and political perspective, in turn, constitutes a biography of the environment, while it constructs Suzuki’s trademark environmentalism.
What are the contributions of these biographies? The familiar yet authoritative “voice” of these narratives attracts a popular audience to a complex and contested array of issues. Both books text/message an “environmentalism” that integrates scientific perspective, public education, and activism (both personal and political) in a commitment to support the planet. Don Quixote Suzuki himself laments his greatest shortcoming. Armed with pen, computer, and camera, spoken word and exotic visuals, the man has devoted a lifetime to tilting at windmills (and alternative energy conservation) to promote an ecologically informed society. In spite of these efforts, society resists the significant ideological and institutional shifts required to protect and promote the natural systems of this planet.
These books introduce the “brand” (the dsf and the man himself), but, more significantly, they construct an environmentalism that celebrates and would protect life on earth. For British Columbia, Suzuki not only puts us “on the map” but also reconceptualizes this place we call home.